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A church blesses its four-legged friends
On Sunday morning Rick Edwards got into his yellow truck and headed, as he does each week, to the Church of the Holy Spirit. And though his partner Tom Land was out of town, Edwards wasn’t alone. His poodle Gracie squirmed excitedly in the seat beside him.
“We call her our bouncing bubble of joy,” Edwards, a retired nurse, said of the young dog.
The five-month-old black poodle, who still boasts a frizzy coat of puppy hair, bounded with energy as Edwards led her to the lawn behind the Episcopal church. There they joined the small congregation and more than a dozen other four-legged visitors who had come along that Sunday.
The crowd seemed to buzz with life as it settled into a makeshift outdoor sanctuary set up beneath the tall conifers that line the church grounds. Some dogs sat quietly at their owners’ sides; others tested the length of their leashes, visiting each other in encounters that only sometimes ended in snarling.
The scene was new to Edwards but would have been familiar to Land, his partner. Last year Land took the couple’s 16-year-old poodle, who has since died, to be honored at the church’s annual Blessing of the Animals. And what one year ago was a poignant and bittersweet moment in the final months of the dog’s life this year was a time of celebration and thanks for the couple’s new dog, whom Edwards said already feels like part of their family.
“I like the spiritual connection (at the blessing) and the idea of God watching over all of us and protecting us,” Edwards said. “It feels like a really good thing to do.”
The annual Blessing of the Animals has been held at the Episcopal church for at least two decades — and at congregations of varying denominations around the world for centuries — always near Oct. 4, the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals.
“It’s a tradition that’s been quite active in the Christian church,” said Rev. Carla Pryne, a petite, good-natured woman who has headed the congregation for a little more than a year and performed the blessings last year as well.
When the time came for Gracie to be blessed, the poodle had calmed down some but was still too fidgety for Pryne to lay hands on her as she had with some of the other dogs whose owners brought them to the front. Instead Pryne, who greeted each pet with a warm smile, stroked Gracie’s muzzle as Edwards held on to her leash.
He beamed as Pryne said a prayer for the young dog. As she had with other animals, Pryne thanked God for the role Gracie would play in her owners’ lives.
“Thank you for the way these animals trust us and love us,” she said.
Before the blessings began, Pryne turned to the congregation and asked what they loved about their pets.
“They’re wonderful companions to hike with,” said one woman.
“That she’s always so happy to see me,” another woman said with a grin.
“They’re always good company,” said one young girl who held a shoebox with two rats in it.
“That she annoys my mom,” said a young boy, prompting laughs from the crowd.
In an interview before the service, Pryne said the Blessing of the Animals is traditionally a time for parishioners and community members to recognize and thank God for their pets — animals, she said, that are gifts from God as well as bridges between human life and the rest of creation.
“People’s pets have a huge place in their hearts,” she said, “and I think they have been vehicles for God’s presence in their lives.”
Pryne said those who participate in the service don’t necessarily believe their pets will be protected through the blessing. They simply appreciate the chance to acknowledge the spiritual nature of their animals and their unconditional love, which she called an example of God’s unconditional love.
“That’s a powerful thing to acknowledge,” Pryne said.
Though the only non-canine pets at this year’s event were two pairs of rats brought by children, members of the church remember years past when cats, rabbits, goats, chickens and horses have participated.
Pryne said she once blessed an exotic bird, as well as a goldfish a young child brought in a plastic bag. Having a service centered on pets, she said, always makes for somber and emotional moments as well as comical ones.
“It has kind of a fun feel to it. … It’s something I always look forward to,” she said.
Joanna Gardiner, a stanch animal lover who runs an animal care business on Vashon, helped at the blessing while dressed as St. Francis, whom she calls her silent partner.
“I think this is an affirmation on the part of the church community that we value the animals,” she said. “That they’re sacred and that any being capable of such love has to have something to do with God. It’s like a celebration.”
Gardiner said she believes animals are in greater harmony with God than humans are, and it’s fitting to recognize their spiritual nature in a blessing.
“I think it’s a wonderful experience for them, and it’s a wonderful experience for us,” she said.
As the service continued, whimpers and yips were often heard in the crowd. Pryne’s own dog, an adopted Corgi mix that her husband held on to, groaned as if he longed to be up front with Pryne as she shared a blessing with each family that presented its pet.
Kimberly Benner brought her border collie Ringo to be prayed over.
“He’s a constant source of joy,” Benner said, grinning. “He reminds us all of how we should behave.”
“I love this dog with every breath in me,” said Karen Gardner, who brought her small, curly-haired Bedlington terrier.
In the most tearful moment of the morning, Pryne entered the crowd to crouch beside Jasmine, a 12-year-old dalmatian who laid on a blanket at the feet of sisters Sharon and Jennifer Poole.
“She’s been having a lot of health problems. … We’re going to miss her so much,” Sharon Poole said, tears running down her face.
All three women reached down and laid hands on the dog.
“We ask that you grant guidance in these days for how best to love her,” Pryne prayed.
During a short greeting time, the women received hugs and warm words from several who were there, including another woman who had brought a sick dog.
As the service drew to a close, Pryne led the crowd through a few last songs and readings, all with a focus on God’s creation. During the final verses of the closing hymn, called “Song at the Center,” the congregation sang, “Let the creatures of creation echo back creation’s prayer.” And almost on cue, Pryne’s dog Max began to pull at his leash and howl.